Children of all abilities glide from page to stage with the likes of American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet pros.
Written by Nancy Bo Flood
Illustrated by Julianna Swaney
“I want to dance, but I can hardly move.”
In “I Will Dance,” Nancy Bo Flood parts the curtain on the life of a girl who was born with cerebral palsy and expected to live “one minute, maybe two, not 10 years of minutes.” Our young narrator — succinct, soulful and sitting in a wheelchair — cannot blow out the candles on her birthday cake. “Not enough strength.” But she has a wish: She wants to dance.
Any book that opens a child’s imagination to the art of movement is something I can get behind, but “I Will Dance” does more: It puts us in this child’s chair, in her tiny yearning body and in her mind, which is mobile and alive. When she speaks, what strikes you is her brevity. It’s as if she has no time to waste on unnecessary words. She is so soft-spoken, yet so firm. It’s not that she wants to dance, it’s that she will.
Of five new children’s dance books, “I Will Dance” is the only one to move away from ballet (once the unrequited birthday wish is divulged). That’s brave; as anyone with a child knows, tutus sell. But this approach is not the only thing that sets it apart: It’s also the details. Our heroine is so smitten with dance that a poster of Martha Graham in “Appalachian Spring” hangs next to her bed. This kills me. Still, when she learns of an audition for Young Dance (a real organization devoted to dancers of all abilities), she is racked by self-doubt: “I am safe in my steel chair, stationary wheels, a motor, me.” At the studio, dancers are arranged in a circle and told to “pass the touch.” The teacher, after kicking a leg behind her in a graceful arc, bends toward the girl and touches her fingers. “Something inside me changes.” As the chain continues, we see the power and harmony that builds from dancing bodies in Julianna Swaney’s illustrations, which glide across the page lending innocence to lightness, effervescence to urgency. “I Will Dance” rides on the sensation of movement; it’s simple yet sophisticated.
B IS FOR BALLET
A Dance Alphabet
Written by John Robert Allman
Illustrated by Rachael Dean
But can a more conventional book on the world of ballet lead a child to do more than, say, wear a tutu to school? Two collaborations with American Ballet Theater try, though neither sparkles. “B Is for Ballet,” by John Robert Allman, with illustrations by Rachael Dean, takes young readers through the alphabet, starting with A for arabesque. It is full of images of Ballet Theater dancers past and present, but they look like their aspirational Bitmojis rather than the actual people. And in a career as ageist as ballet, it’s disheartening to see Alessandra Ferri, one of the greatest dramatic ballerinas of all time, relegated to the letter I, as in “ice bath” for “soothing tired, tattered feet. After promenades in pointe shoes, relaxation can’t be beat.”
WELCOME TO BALLET SCHOOL
Written by Ashley Bouder
Illustrated by Julia Bereciartu
In “Welcome to Ballet School,” Bouder, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, pays homage to her former teacher, the celebrated Marcia Dale Weary. Julia Bereciartu’s illustrations capture her charmingly, from her trademark blond bangs to her sensible skirt and cardigan. The scene is the first day of class for a diverse group of young people, including Violet, Bouder’s daughter in the book and in life. During the second half of the class, Bouder shows up to teach them sections of “Sleeping Beauty.” As they work their way through ballet positions, the children are given playful facial expressions by Bereciartu: Tongues stick out when steps become complicated; hilarious frozen smiles appear when they try to balance. Through it all, “Welcome” takes ballet seriously. Bouder explains ballet terminology with diagrams that resemble those in a training manual. (My younger self would have eaten it up.) She also moves beyond steps to the heart of dancing. When Violet topples over while stretching her leg high in a grand battement, Weary tells her, “It is better to try our hardest and fall down than to not try at all.” It’s something of an inside joke. Bouder, a dancer known for her virtuosity and daring, has delivered splendid crashes at City Ballet. And the message is correct: A fall is a sign that a dancer is going for it.
Read the full list from the New York Times here.